Coaching

Around the time “Personal Best” appeared in print, I had reached the conclusion that if I wanted to become good at anything or maintain a consistent level of performance, I should invest in a teacher or coach whenever possible. The article only served to reinforce this view:

Coaching in pro sports proceeds from [the] premise [that] the teaching model [is] naïve about our human capacity for self-perfection. It holds that, no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own. One of these views, it seemed to me, had to be wrong. So I called Itzhak Perlman to find out what he thought.

I asked him why concert violinists didn’t have coaches, the way top athletes did. He said that he didn’t know, but that it had always seemed a mistake to him. He had enjoyed the services of a coach all along.

He had a coach? “I was very, very lucky,” Perlman said. His wife, Toby, whom he’d known at Juilliard, was a concert-level violinist, and he’d relied on her for the past forty years. “The great challenge in performing is listening to yourself,” he said. “Your physicality, the sensation that you have as you play the violin, interferes with your accuracy of listening.” What violinists perceive is often quite different from what audiences perceive.

In Tara’s class, the idea that what improvisers interpret can be significantly different from what an audience sees came up multiple times, so during a Q&A, I decided to ask some follow-up questions to Tara and Rance about their viewpoints on coaching. Both of them were incredibly strong advocates of coaching, and at one point, Rance said, “You have two choices: either get a coach or just put on consistently perfect shows for ten years.”

Based on their answers, I would say that the consensus sentiment is that improv coaches offer value in two ways:
(1) They manage the egos on the team.
(2) They serve as a representative for what the audience sees.

I think almost everyone who has been on an improv team can see the value of the first, especially on newer teams, but the second one is the reason for their long-term value since that holds regardless of how comfortable a team gets and even if one decides to put on a solo performance.

So do Tara and Rance have a coach? Interestingly enough, the answer was no, but their justification was logistical: once they became teachers/coaches, they had a difficult time finding coaches for themselves. I think they were touching on another interesting point mentioned in “Personal Best”:

Coaching aimed at improving the performance of people who are already professionals is less usual. It’s also riskier: bad coaching can make people worse.

Renée Fleming told me that when her original voice coach died, ten years ago, she was nervous about replacing her. She wanted outside ears, but they couldn’t be just anybody’s. “At my stage, when you’re at my level, you don’t really want to go to a new person who might mess things up,” she said. “Somebody might say, ‘You know, you’ve been singing that way for a long time, but why don’t you try this?’ If you lose your path, sometimes you can’t find your way back, and then you lose your confidence onstage and it really is just downhill.”

The sort of coaching that fosters effective innovation and judgment, not merely the replication of technique, may not be so easy to cultivate.

Based on some follow-up responses, it appears that this is a common plight for improvisers at their level of experience. So does that mean that Tara and Rance give each other notes?

“NO!” they sang in unison.

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